“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Our stories certainly describe the world in which we have traveled, in which we have lived and by which we have been shaped. Our stories inform us the ways in which we have been conditioned, and perhaps describe the ways in which we have transcended those conditions. These conditions and conditionings describe the outlines, are the contours and edges of our identities, both allowing us the scaffolding on which to construct meaningful lives, and also confining us to the parameters of that scaffolding. As we find the pathways of our lives’ interwoven with one another, we enrich and enliven that contextual scaffolding, and so sharing stories has always been a meaningful and significant act to me. Being intentional in this endeavor, building new structures and scaffolding that I know are destined to be transcended, I hope to add to the context of the world, some richness to its texture, and not just blindly live out the momentum of my experience, merely coming and going with the wind.
I remember, I am loved, I … belong?
Sometimes, deep in meditation, I unlock memories, moments that live on in my bones and in the way I breath, but that I can barely put a word to. I can recognize these, in those rare moments that cannot be sought out or even called up, but merely prepared for, as core components of my self. There is one feeling that lives there, so deep inside and from so long ago that I cannot escape its grip, and if I were to pick one emotional gist to describe my story, it would be tied directly into this, most impossible of memories. Memory might be the wrong word for this, perhaps impression fits with a bit more elegant symmetry. The impression is one of loss, of severe disconnection and loss, and I remember being haunted by this for the first few years of my life. It’s like a dream, almost in the third person… but I similarly remember, and remember clearly, taking my first steps, alone, with nobody in the room. I remember getting off of the couch, wobbling alone, and walking away into the kitchen where my Mom was, and I remember why I refused to do this when they encouraged me to. I remember being haunted by an abstract sense of loss that never seemed to fit, that made me feel cautious and alone. There was a trauma, and the way that every moment of my life was celebrated didn’t seem to sit with what I felt.
I remember the defiance and the will to succeed, on my own, and I remember the surrender I experienced when I was embraced and celebrated. I remember choosing to forget the loss, and being smothered in the warmth and love that was being constantly showered upon me by my Mom and Dad.
I was adopted when I was two weeks old, and I am absolutely certain that if my adopted family, my Mom, Dad, and big brother, were to read this that they would tell me that there is no way that I could remember this, and that I am completely full of what the horse left in the middle of the road. But in my bones, I do. I remember it, it left a mark on me, and I can identify it. So, I was raised by the most loving and supportive people that anyone could hope for, they embraced and celebrated me as if I was the flesh of their own flesh, the blood of their own blood. “Adoption” was, literally, one of the first words that I recognized, it was always in the open, and always OK. I was always assured, and reassured, and shown that I was loved as their very own. I was raised by a tremendous Italian Catholic Mom, close to her family, close to the church, and had many cousins. While I was rarely alone, and despite the showers of love and celebration, I never felt the “click” that let mke feel like I belonged. Ever.
It wouldn’t be until much, much later in life that I would make the connection. I hold no issue against them, not in the least, but I think that they, in their passion to make me feel connected, to feel loved and wanted, overlooked the important distinction in being adopted, as opposed to being blood born. It was when I met my biological mother that I first experienced the difference that can only be described as the distinct defining line between nature and nurture, something more felt than thought of, a sense… and while that made a sharp mark on my mind, it wouldn’t be for another almost 20 years until I finally placed my persistent, life long sense of isolation and … differentness.
I remember the suffering of separation, the loss of being taken, and I remember the despair. It is my earliest memory, and it lives in my bones. It was never given space to breath, because I was loved, literally as if I was one of their own, and I was, but I also wasn’t. This persistent feeling lives on today as a reason to serve, a reminder that the suffering of life is, despite all of our efforts, all pervasive. That we are all destined to be conditioned by loss, that we should listen, and that we should care.
I went to a small, private, Catholic school, a community that was wholesome, close, and supportive. We had Church services every Friday in school, and my family and I went to Sunday mass every week, I took all of the sacraments and was quick to become an alter boy, proud to stand in such a place of importance and reverence. As time passed there became less and less separation between family, school, and church. My Mom was very involved with the school, a leader in her community, she volunteered nearly every day and ran several programs. We were present at, literally, every church/school event: a fundraiser? My mom was organizing it. A festival? We were setting up. Immunizations? The records were in our home. However, while this tight knit situation was very nurturing and supportive, I was a loner from the get go, and as I grew, the sense of disconnection and disjointedness that I had learned to live with from an early age deepened as I made contact with other kids in school. The disconnection that I felt with my classmates, however, was offset by the sense of pride and purpose that came with serving in Church.
By the time I was in the fourth grade I had made up my mind that I didn’t belong with other people, they made no sense to me, and the only thing that did was the kindness, love, and promise of God, and I decided that I must have a place in the Church. I realized that I was far to young to be making life decisions, but made the intention to revisit this as I grew and became aware of what the world offered me. It did not occur to me that other 4th graders didn’t think in terms of life span development. In the 6th grade I decided that I might want a family, I might want to follow in my Mom’s footsteps and forego taking religious vows in favor of the joy and promise of children, so I decided on Deaconship, rather than Priesthood, but kept the question open, as I still couldn’t relate with other kids. I decided that I would revisit it in a few years and concentrate on trying to find another way in life, just in case.
I looked to the Church as a place where I might, finally, feel belonging. I looked to the promise of Faith as a refuge from the haunting sense and experience of being disjointed and out of place. Most importantly, I believed that I had found a way in life, and took stock in the Mystery of Some Devine Plan. I had hope that it was all worth something. This was my chosen identity, I took refuge in it, and it allowed me to accept the variety of others around me. It gave me the space to accept others on their terms, realizing that I did not have to belong with them, or fit in in any way. That relief was the first time that I had experienced the wisdom of allowing others the space to be whomever they needed to be in that moment, where I first came into contact with the principle of meeting people where they are.
It was soon after this that my own series of unfortunate events began to unfold. A key family illness and a scandal at the school involving a takeover by some old, violent nuns, was enough to damage the foundation of my rather tightly knit world. At a time when I was, very intentionally, grounding into an identity that required the careful formulation of meso and macro-level connections, and a trust with the greater world at large, when I should have been formulating the next steps of a very deliberate plan to reach out and discover the promise of a new belonging, I lost everything. When the nun would rant and rave about Satan in the Zig-Zag man’s beard, when she would tell us to be weary of “oily men with beards” like that one, when we would be subject to daily, paranoid and desperate ramblings… when this would happen, I would feel my hope failing, and it went on for two long, uncomfortable years. When the nun threw the iron shears at the class, that is when I felt trust in the world take a fateful stab in the heart, and my hope in belonging died.
Nobody seemed able to address my dismay, nobody really knew about it, I was supposed to be OK, just like everybody else. I was one of the 8 kids left at the end, my Mom wouldn’t accept defeat, she kept me in there untill the bitter end, as she fought, and lost. When it came time for me to testify, the nuns against whom I was testifying managed to become the sitting judge and jury of their own hearing, the state wouldn’t get involved. They wouldn’t allow me to testify. The world was revealed as a hopelessly corrupt, broken machine. I wasn’t OK, and I wouldn’t recover from this for a very long time. I really lost everything that I was holding on to for a sense of world and a sense of self, for a sense of identity and belonging. It was as if everything that I was orienting towards was being attacked, deliebrately, by the world at large, and as I went into high school, I was utterly, completely lost and unprepared.
On the outside my family was a white, Christian, working, middle class, GM family that was faithful, loyal, and full of promise. Meanwhile…
I spent the next several years looking to fill a void, and I did this in two very distsinct and deliberate ways. The first was rather wholesome, I decided to search out and study up on every form of faith that I could find. I opened up to the world to see what it had to offer, to taste the texture of the world, and I hoped that I could find something to replace my recent loss of faith and direction with, to find a new home. I certainly couldn’t accept that everything that I had been indoctrinated in, that everything that I had, at first rather reluctantly, surrendured to was a lie, not without a fight. So I studied, I explored, I searched, and nothing seemed to satisfy.
The second void filler was intoxication: sex, drugs, and alcohol, and I dove deep. I was forced to go to a Catholic high school, which I hated with a passion. I chose to hate the prep-boy culture, the wealthy, white, well to do people that surrounded me. I clung to counter-culture, I found the early 90’s remnants of the late 80’s punk scene in downtown Flint and fell in love, and I eventually I realized that I could explore cosmic realities with psychedlellics, and my two pasions merged for a few rather strange years which eventually rendered me homeless and without a family to turn to.
My entire life up this time and my deliberately chosen identity was built on a tightly knit fabric of faith in and of the church, family, and school. This fabric was in tatters. I had no place to fix my faith, my family and I had suffered a tremendous rift, and the school I was subjected to was nothing but a place for me to grow aversion to the structured world, to any structured world.
I made it to Ann Arbor when I was 20, friendlier streets than Flint. I was out of my mind, like a mad poet/prophet of some nameless cult, I was desperate, homeless, and alone. I had gone from such promise and hope to the depth of despair… I was broken in every way.
Fatherhood – Addiciton – Aloneness
And then, at the age of 21, I became a Dad. I finaally found something to hold on to, something to drive purpose into my life, again, something to give me a reason to be me. A few turns of the wheel later and I would find myself living in Ann Arbor in an apartment of my own, washing dishes to pay a rather expensive rent bill, and consoling the emotional wounds that became raw in the time between visits with my daughter with ever heavier bottles. I spent over a decade searching for truth and comfort in the bottom of a bottle, working like a dog to pay the rent, and cherishing my daughter like the air I need to breath whenever I could see her. I kept the drinking under the cover from my family. From the outside I was a hard working, loyal Dad who was doing everything he could to be close to his daughter. Nobody knew how drunk I was when I was alone, and I was alone a lot.
I became what you call a high functioning alcoholic. I held a job, paid the bills, met my responsabilities, and studied a lot. I had many interests, and this new internet thing made it easy to explore and study and learn, and so I did, and so this made it even easier to be alone.
The sum of it all
So much has happened between then and now. It is as if I have watched as many empires of my life have arisen, thrived, and then withered away. If there is nothing else, life has shown me, over and over again, that everything passes. Everything you hold will, eventually, be taken from you, and everything that you take comfort in will fall short of providing the kind of care you feel you need. What we lose can teach us a lot, if we care to learn. It teaches us that, in kind, that nothing that torments us can last. It can teach us that we are much more than what we cling to, that we strive to identify with, or that we even feel so at home with. It can teach us to deny complacency, to always keep vigilant against the oppressive force of all pervasive conditioning, and it can teach us to plant seeds that will outlast our very selves. As a new empire has arisen in my life, the foundation from which I come from has taught me that it won’t last, as precious as it is. Knowning this, when I see those that share this space with me begin to falter becasue the scaffolding of their lives begins to shake and shudder, I can be stable, I already know that it’t coming. I can love it without clinging, I can appreciate it for its rarity and for its very temporary nature. The rose is made more beautiful by the virtue that it won’t last, and the deeper I know this, the more wonderful life becomes.
Who I am
I no longer seek to belong, or to be. I no longer desperately seek a place for faith, or a reason to believe. It’s a non-issue for me. I lost every identity that I ever took refuge in, so now, instead, I simply breath. Mindfully, I feel this moment, knowing that, if there is a real me, it is just here, in this breath, feeling, sitting, watching as the wind blows and things come and go, accepting. I would want to teach that gift, the gift of just being. I would hope that we could all appreciate one another in that way, fundamentally aware of merely being, and being in a world where everything will one day be taken from us. This sense of shared suffering is what drives me to social work, it is what I call humanity, it is universal compassion, unhindered by borders or bloodlines, by economic ties or beliefs, by genders or preferences, but it appreciates and loves them, seeing them as the scaffolding that they are… both freeing and confining. This is the heart of peace, of awareness, of justice, and of becoming free of the conditioning and colonization of our minds and hearts. Just breathing, no longer grasping, at peace. There is so much work to be done…